by Douglas Kellner
Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 101-115
From the early 1980s to the present, Taiwanese filmmakers have produced an excellent series of films to explore social tensions and problems in cinematically compelling and often original ways, blending social realism with modernist innovation. Out of this cinematic production, several world-class directors have emerged including Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Ang Lee. A series of films now exist worthy of international attention. This development is surprising since prior to the 1980s, Taiwanese cinema suffered heavy repression and was constituted as a highly propagandistic and/or commercial cinema with few distinctive products or directors.[open notes in new window]
The recent Taiwan cinema is "new" in that it carries out a rebellion against previous genre cinema (its own and Hollywood) and attempts to produce a socially critical and aesthetically innovative cycle of films appropriate to explore contemporary Taiwan society. It may he an exaggeration to claim with Fredric Jameson that the films of the Taiwan cinema constitute
And yet as a cycle of national cinema, the new Taiwan cinema has produced an impressive succession of films comprising a distinctive national cinema, one increasingly visible in the international arena.
In this study, I shall discuss new Taiwan cinema as a linked set of probings of Taiwanese history, society, and identity that explore the conflicts between tradition and modernity and that deal with the concerns of the present moment — a conjuncture fraught with problems and perils, but also possibilities. I have adopted the term "new Taiwan cinema" rather than the standard "Taiwanese new wave" because the cycle of films of from the early 1980s to the late 1980s, standardly described as "new wave," has generally been said to come to an end. But — as I argue — this cycle of 1980s films described as "new wave" has produced the preconditions to develop a new Taiwanese cinema which transcends the parameters of the earlier "new wave" films, a cinema that is highly visible in the 90s and is rich with possibilities that transcend the earlier movement.
I also resist the term "new wave" to describe these films because I find the very concept of "new wave" problematic. The term began circulating with the Cahiers du cinéma promotion of a set of French films of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Henceforth, "new wave" was a marketing term delineating something new, allegedly worthy of consumption. As Peter Wollen suggests, in this context "new wave" became a term used to promote fresh entries into the international cultural market. Some Taiwanese directors — most notably Ang Lee — do produce films for a global market and deploy themes and cinematic techniques from world culture.
However, the best of the new Taiwan cinema stands out as distinctively Taiwanese, dealing with contemporary Taiwanese realities. This new Taiwan cinema developed a shared style and a set of concerns and themes. It has attempted to develop a new type of national Taiwanese cinema, which seeks to define Taiwanese history and identity and to deal with current social problems previously ignored or suppressed in the national cinema and in Taiwanese culture at large. Finally, the metaphor of "wave" itself is ambiguous, signifying a natural oceanic phenomenon's sudden erupting, reaching a crescendo, making a splash, and then fading away without a trace. Such an image surely provides a dubious metaphor for cinematic production and history.
Rather than seeing the 1980s Taiwanese films simply as a "new wave," as an artifact in film history, we should understand them as cultural and political interventions, as probings of Taiwanese society and history, and as self consciously creating a distinctly national cinema. I will accordingly focus on what now appears as the "heroic" period of the new Taiwan cinema, the 1980s. At this time, filmmakers received expanded freedom to make films and explore cinematic style and social themes, and as a result, they produced a new type of political cinema distinctly focused on Taiwanese problems and identity. During the 1980s, Taiwan's major filmmakers shared certain concerns in their subject matter, sometimes collaborated on each others' projects, and produced a body of work of lasting significance. It appears, however, that Taiwan's audiences tired of the 80s filmmakers' themes, styles, and complex and challenging films. Thus, a more heterogeneous, hybridized cinema emerged in the 1990s, influenced both by the most popular forms of global culture and by postmodernism, which itself emerged as a global phenomenon.
Rather than finding the 80s new Taiwan cinema an exhausted venture, I consider it as productively opening the way for varied, diverse national film production which in the 90s joined a proliferating global film culture. As a film movement, New Taiwanese cinema of the 1980s deserves to be studied and experienced. Many of the films that I discuss have high aesthetic and political quality and have received recognition within world cinema. In particular, the films under inquiry here helped create a new, more open and democratic, Taiwanese public sphere, providing a cultural forum to discuss national problems. As such, this cinema remains fascinating as a case study in the politics of culture and in the use of cinema to promote progressive social transformation.
Taiwan had no native cinema before its liberation from Japan at the end of World War Two. For some centuries before the Sino-Japanese war, Taiwan had been dominated by China; after China's defeat Japan colonized Taiwan from 1895 until 1945, the year of Japan's surrender in World War Two. For the first half of the century, therefore, Japan controlled Taiwanese cultural production, including cinema, and did not let an indigenous national cinema flourish. Most films exhibited were from Japan, China, or the United States. And Japanese censors tightly controlled these and any other films which might include Taiwanese participation in their production.
After Japan's defeat, China once again assumed control of Taiwan, which became subject to cultural domination by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, the Kuomintang (KMT). Since national cinemas, like national literature and culture, shape national identity, in modern times colonized countries like Taiwan could not create their own independent cinemas. Instead, they became markets for the colonizing countries' exports. Thus Taiwan — suffering China and Japan's hegemony in the twentieth century — did not create a national cinema until the Chinese Nationalist government in 1949 under Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang established Taiwan as the Republic of China. The KMT regarded Taiwan as part of greater China, as the real China, and the island nation was established as a China waiting for the People's Republic's overthrow. Such a nation sought mainly to preserve the heritage of the past, entombed, for example, in the National Museum of Taipei which held all the national treasures that Chiang Kai-shek's armies looted from the mainland and carried to Taiwan. Taiwan's political ideology, oriented toward restoring the past, militated against building a specifically Taiwanese cinema, one that would deal with Taiwan's past and present conflicts.
For its first several decades, the dominant postwar Taiwanese cinema was exclusively government-financed and controlled. Chiang Kai-shek's regime used it as a propaganda vehicle or for harmless diversion. As entertainment, the institutions of film production churned out innocuous comedies, melodramas, Kung Fu films and other genre artifacts. All of Taiwanese culture suffered from the Nationalist Party regime's heavy-handed censorship. The government shunned both aesthetic innovation and any probing of Taiwan's history or social tensions, producing a largely escapist cinema.
Until the new cinema of the 1980s, Taiwanese cinema remained primarily a genre cinema, utilizing traditional genre codes without any distinctive national traits or stylistic innovations. When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, his son who succeeded him began to allow more liberalized cultural expression, evident in the development in the early 1980s of a new Taiwan cinema. Hong Kong cinema's success led the Taiwanese government to promote film as an industry, which helped produce a renaissance of Taiwanese cinema. In fact, the overall climate for cultural expression improved during Chiang's son's reign. Politically, he allowed an opposition party to form in 1986, and in 1987 he terminated 40-year-old martial law. Following his death in 1988, liberalization continued. Currently a struggle is underway for greater democratization and freedom, but these tendencies were visible in and perhaps inaugurated by the 80s cycle of films.
Early examples of new Taiwan cinema were government-financed but nonetheless exhibited a freedom of expression and social criticism not evident before the 80s thaw. Because the filmmakers needed to take in account possible government censorship or denial of funding, they also operated within limited parameters in regards to social criticism and opposition. In the following sections, I shall examine several key films and directors from this movement. My goal is to discuss the construction of a national cinema and to offer a case study of how a national cinema might serve as a cultural forum. In the 1980s, various Taiwanese film directors explored issues of national identity and dealt with pressing current political and social problems. Moreover, 80s Taiwan cinema presents an occasion to explore the tensions between tradition and modernity since the decade's key films negotiate this transition, just as many films of the 1990s deal with the tensions between the modern and postmodern eras.
THE NEW TAIWAN CINEMA
The first evidence that the Taiwanese "new wave" comprises a coherent movement comes with two anthology films about contemporary Taiwanese society. IN OUR TIME (1982) features four short films by directors who will later distinguish themselves, including one by Edward Yang, later a major figure. This inaugural film is followed by the anthology THE SANDWICH MAN (1983), which goes much further in probing beneath the surface of Taiwanese life and which constitutes something of a breakthrough in utilizing innovative cinematic techniques to explore contemporary problems. Based on stories by author Chun-ming Huang, THE SANDWICH MAN constitutes a three-part anthology which reveals the influence of Taiwan's increasingly influential rural literature movement, seeking to preserve stories from Taiwan's agrarian past and to chart the ways that urbanization has an impact on Taiwanese society. Hou Hsiao-Hsien and other directors of the new Taiwan cinema are deeply attracted to such rural stories and ambiences, which they use to capture the uniqueness and specificity of the Taiwan experience as well as aspects of their own life histories.
In THE SANDWICH MAN anthology, three short films explore 60s Taiwanese society to depict allegorically the island's economic development and the human costs such capitalist development entails. The films combine critical realism with modernist aesthetic techniques, attempting to use cinema to explore current problems and to develop a new type of cinematic style to do so. The three-part episodic films constituting THE SANDWICH MAN thus produce something of a "national allegory" of a certain stage of Taiwan's history. Such allegories require at least a certain degree of critical "social realism," in Lukács' sense which portrays typical characters in characteristic social situations so as to delineate the existing class, gender, and social structure, as well as forces of domination and oppression, existing problems, conflicts, and struggles, and historical developments. Yet such critical realism need not, as I argue throughout this study, preclude modernist aesthetic innovation which seeks new forms, languages, and styles to express the specificity of national experience and problems.
THE SANDWICH MAN' s first episode, "Son's Big Doll," directed by and starring Hou Hsiao-Hsien, takes place in 1962 and shows poor rural folks who migrated to the city struggling for economic survival. The main character, played by Hou himself, lives in a shantytown with his wife. He works as "a sandwich man," who dresses as a clown and carries a billboard advertising a local cinema's features. Flashbacks show his hustling the job and his wife's getting birth control because they cannot afford a child. In the film's present, however, they now have a child who loves to play with his clown-dressed father. Yet others ridicule the "sandwich man" and he is obviously tired of his job; moreover, his boss doubts whether hiring a sandwich man to promote films is profitable.
Ever hustling, the main character persuades his boss to let him ride a bicycle carrying a large sign on the grounds that it would attract more customers. The boss reluctantly agrees. The man happily no longer has to wear a clown uniform and makeup. But when his son no longer recognizes the father and cries when he sees him out of uniform, to please his son the man dons the clown costume and make-up, thus becoming "Son's Big Doll."
The episode deploys Hou's trademark of using a static camera and long shots and long takes held steady throughout entire scenes to explore the characters and social environment under scrutiny. The shots depict the sandwich man and his family in relation to their underclass surroundings, often showing the father isolated and sad — the tragic clown struggling to survive in a hostile world. Other times the long shots depict intimacy between husband and wife and parents and children, showing their attempts to achieve dignity and happiness in a poor urban environment. All of the slum's characters have left rural communities to try to make it in the city, and there they form something of a community again in the absence of any stable social structures and institutions.
"Son's Big Doll" shows the scarcities faced by the poor in Taiwan in the early 1960s. When a doctor provides some birth control pills to the protagonist's wife, who wishes to postpone birth until they can afford a child, we see how Taiwan appropriates a sort of modernization to master its poverty. In the energies of the father/clown to earn money, we see the forces that will make Taiwan's economic miracle possible. And in the loving scenes between husband and wife and father and son, Hou makes clear the stable familial structure that enables Taiwan's economic boom. In its touching, sweet story, the script contributes to a national allegory about Taiwan's economic development.
The next episode, "Vicki's Hat" directed by Zeng Zhuan-Xiang, shows two young salesmen traveling from village to village and selling a Japanese-made pressure cooker. Here, the scripts delineates 1960s Taiwanese development when Japanese products, sales techniques, and corporate structures dominated the Taiwanese economic landscape. The salesmen meet resistance everywhere, especially from village people who wish to stick to traditional ways of cooking and who are suspicious of modern commodities. Although unhappy selling the Japanese product, the vendors face pressure to increase sales, and we see them discussing ways of overcome resistance to their product, ironically striving to follow Japanese sales techniques.
Their sales efforts and entrepreneurial drive depict allegorically the energies that were to enable Taiwan to achieve a high level of economic development from the 1960s to the present. But "Vicki's Hat" also presents the costs of that development. One salesman befriends a young girl named Vicki who always wears the same hat. One day when he takes her hat off, we see an ugly red tumor on her hairless head. At the same moment, the film cuts to a scene showing the Japanese pressure cooker exploding and critically injuring his partner. The story thus deals with economic development's destructiveness. Here it is seen as forcing individuals to exploit others, and the entrepreneurs risk losing their innocence, humanity, and even their life in the process.
Indeed, Zeng represents the force of economic determinism in the film, depicting the characters overpowered by economic forces. The story allegorizes unrestrained Taiwanese capitalism's triumph by showing the consequence of its destructive effects. Likewise, in his later film, A WOMAN OF WRATH (1987), Zeng shows a woman overpowered by the twin forces of patriarchy and tradition, struggling to control her environment but victimized by powerful social and cultural forces.
The first two episodes in THE SANDWICH MAN depict conforming to the pressures of a developing economy while struggling to live in it. The third episode, "A Taste of Apple" directed by Wan Jen, satirizes the late 60s fascination with U.S. culture. Opening black and white scenes depict crowds and the U.S. embassy, perhaps reminding audiences of an attack on the embassy during that period. But the images shift from newsreel footage to depicting in a slow-motion sequence a Taiwanese worker's being hit by a car driven by U.S. military. As the camera slowly pulls hack, the scene shifts into color, emphasizing the worker's blood and injury.
The rest of the film contrasts U.S and Taiwanese characters. It traces the gradual process through which the worker's family accepts his injury — especially when they learn that the North Americans will handsomely compensate the family. The social contrast appears across a play of visual images: the large and mysterious U.S. citizens and the shorter Taiwanese; the crowded and poor slums and the open-spaces of the U.S. embassy and hospital; the darkness of Taiwanese urban scenes vs. the U.S. hospital's shining white light and decor.
The final scene shows the injured man's family in the hospital room enjoying an apple imported from the U.S. — a symbol of U.S luxury and of Taiwanese fascination with U.S products and culture. Conservative critics have complained that the episode presented the Taiwanese too negatively, and the resulting uproar even led to deleting this key end scene where the children taste the imported apple. Such a critical controversy highlights new Taiwan cinema's relative daringness. It is willing to present its society satirically and critically and to dissect social tensions in a way never attempted by previous conservative, escapist films.
THE SANDWICH MAN allegorizes 60s economic progress through the hustle for survival, the appropriation of Japanese products and business techniques, and finally the fascination with U.S. culture and dependence on the United States. The stories deal with how Taiwan society has adapted itself to a modern capitalist, world economic system. The films use innovative cinematic techniques to tell seemingly "slice-of-life" stories. Subsequent new Taiwan cinema would show audiences real people dealing with real problems, a cinema far removed from the previously dominant film styles of costume drama, kung fu spectacle, banal comedy, and "health realism" (a conservative film style that attempted to depict the present from the perspective of a "healthy" realism). Thus, the new cinema broke with its own cinema's previous genre conventions as well as with the dominant conventions of Hollywood film.
New Taiwan cinema exhibits a shared effort to develop a distinct cinematic language appropriate for a national cinema. Several directors, especially Hou and Edward Yang, use a fractured narrative style with fragmentary scenes, unconventional episodic narrative cuts, and often a complex storyline that forces the viewer to construct the narrative and put the pieces together to produce a reading of the film. The films rarely have a conventional beginning, middle and end, or standard Hollywood pacing. Sometimes scenes run for an extremely long time and, in Hou's case, employ a static camera. In Yang's case, often the characters arc placed at the margins of the frame or even remain off-frame, and dialogue often overlaps and does not always correlate to the images. Both Hou and Yang in their feature-length films engage in temporal jolts, cutting from a dramatic scene to the situation as it has evolved months or even years in the future. Here the audience is forced to construct what has happened in the meanwhile so as to figure out what produced the changes they see. Thematically, Hou's and Zeng's episodes in THE SANDWICH MAN deploy flashbacks to show characters making a transition to new socio-economic situations. Many of the films of the new Taiwan cinema therefore require an active viewer for what Barthes (1975) calls a "writerly" text, in contrast to the "readerly" texts of conventional literature and Hollywood cinema which offer up predigested meanings and are quickly consumed.
New Taiwan cinema favors outdoor locations over studio ones. It utilizes natural rather than artificial lighting as it explores ordinary people's real living and working spaces. Long takes and deep focus shots allow viewers to explore the details in unfamiliar social environments, ones cinema rarely depicted before. Often the directors cast non-professional actors and script dialogue in a way in which the characters' dialects point to their specific region and class. Problems of the underclass, women, youth, and other marginalized and oppressed groups take on a new dramatic importance, as do the peculiar issues in constructing Taiwanese national identity.
The films tend to combine social realist with modernist aesthetics. No only do socially typical characters represent specific social classes, regions, or groupings, but the use of real locations evokes a sense of contemporary social reality. Yet modernist aesthetic innovations include sound and image juxtapositions, fragmented narratives, flashbacks and temporal dislocations, and open-ended, often puzzling endings. Indeed, this cinema, as a political cinema, reveals the artificiality of Lukács' pitting realism against modernism since 80s Taiwan cinema has effectively borrowed from both — including Brecht, Fassbinder, Altman, and other directors who themselves combine modernism and realism.
In THE SANDWICH MAN both Hou and Zeng use deep focus shots and a fixed camera, with characters coming in and out of the frame. Wan Jen uses a detached fixed camera to capture American and Taiwanese interactions and to juxtapose the world of the urban poor to the modern antiseptic U.S. hospital. In his feature films, Edward Yang constructs highly complex images where characters arc often at opposite sides of the frame, separated by objects; the people sometimes glide out of the frame while speaking. In this way, Yang's camera work and framing suggest human alienation and objectification in an urban environment, and he shows a determining social reality to exist off-screen, shaping the visually depicted actions.
In "A Taste of Apple" an American, a Mandarin-speaking policeman from the mainland, and two Taiwanese women speaking the local Fukka dialect try to converse in a driving rain, highlighting cultural differences and the obstacles to forging something like a Taiwanese national identity. Furthermore, in the major plot line, the injured man's wife does not speak Mandarin and her daughter must constantly translate for her. Language marks the characters' identity and points to the island's hybridized, contested cultural identity.
The films of the new Taiwan cinema are also highly personal and exhibit a high degree of collaboration, pointing to the film movement's shared parameters and ideology. As noted, the major directors produced film anthologies together. Hou performed the major male role in Edward Yang's TAIPEI STORY (1985) and mortgaged his house to finance and produce Yang's THE TERRORIZER (1986). The highly-respected Taiwanese film historian and critic Hsiung-ping Chiao notes that Hou Hsiao-hsien's "A TIME TO LIVE AND A TIME TO DIE was based on Hou Hsiao-hsien's own life; SUMMER AT GRANDPA'S (1984) on the film's writer Chu Tien-wen, and DUST IN THE WIND on the screenplay writer Wu Nien-chen."
The anthology films IN OUR TIME and THE SANDWICH MAN and subsequent key films present some of the defining hybrid elements in the Taiwanese national experiences and the components of and obstacles to forging a national identity. By the 1980s, Taiwan's unique amalgam of modern and traditional society had undergone rapid modernization and contained native Taiwanese and various generations from and strata of Chinese mainland culture. Thus, different languages and cultural forms competed for people's loyalty and made national identity contested. Taiwan was a colonial country, occupied by Japan for the first half of the century and by factions from mainland China during the second half, following the Japanese occupation. In addition, in the 1950s Taiwan opened itself to globalization and an international consumer culture. In particular, in the 50s and 60s, U.S. culture permeated the island since the U.S. sent troops, provided loans which sparked the economic boom, and imposed U.S. products in the marketplace.
Not until the 1980s did artists have the freedom of expression to articulate past political and historical realities and present complexities. Thus, Taiwanese cinema — and the culture at large — needed to clarify the contemporary moment and its historical origins as the nation careened into an uncertain future. The new Taiwan cinema was soon to provide a major national epic director in Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and several other cineastes would produce an impressive body of work dealing in original and compelling ways with the problems of contemporary Taiwan and its unique historical experience.
HOU HSIAO-HSIEN'S EPIC DRAMAS OF EVERYDAY LIFE
Beginning with a 1982 co-directed feature GREEN GREEN GRASS OF HOME, his work on THE SANDWICH MAN in 1983, and his films THE BOYS FROM FENG KUEI, SUMMER AT GRANDPA'S (1984), A TIME TO LIVE AND A TIME TO DIE (1985), DUST IN THE WIND (1986), DAUGHTER OF THE NILE (1987), CITY OF SADNESS (1989) and THE PUPPETMASTER (1993), Hou Hsiao-Hsien produced a series of slice-of-life melodramas and historical epics which probed the personal histories of Taiwanese citizens and provided materials for a national history and cinema. His intense focus on everyday life provides an epic quality to ordinary people's lives, and his characters embody Taiwan's turbulent history and conflicts.
Hou has developed a personal cinematic style that combines realist focus on everyday life with modernist cinematic innovations and a distinctly individual vision. His stylistic devices involve long shots and long takes, often with deep focus, that explore personal relations and people's ties to their culture and environment. He sees an epic quality to the dramas of everyday life where typical Taiwanese characters experience the dynamics of their island's history. Hou stands as the major figure in developing a distinctly Taiwanese cinema with its own style, subject matter, and themes.
Particular national cinemas often define themselves against dominant cinema and create their own cinematic languages and thematics. While Hollywood film deploys quick editing, alternating long, middle, and close-up shots, as well as shot/reverse shots which explore, usually in close up, characters' reaction to the scenes, Hou uses few edits and few close ups, preferring long shots and long takes to allow an extended time and a panoramic view in which to explore a situation. Although he probes specific family histories, including his own and those of his collaborators, his films allegorically present Taiwan's mutable, complex history. He is both the most prolific and one of the best-known Taiwanese directors, winning several major prizes in international film festivals.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films THE BOYS FROM FENG KUEI (1984) and SUMMER AT GRANDPA'S (1984), deal with growing up in Taiwan, as do many of his later films. A TIME TO LIVE AND A TIME TO DIE (1985; hereafter TIME) deals with the director's own childhood. Born on mainland China in 1947 in the Hakka community of Guangdong, which speaks a unique dialect and has its own distinct traditions, Hou emigrated at an early age with his family to Taiwan, where his father became a government official. The film explores a small town family's coming to terms with its environment and dealing with the hardships of sickness, death, and the pains of growing up.
The story focuses on Ah Hao-ku and his relations with his grandmother, parents, siblings, and Taiwanese friends. Opening scenes use long shots and long takes to explore the modest family house and the relationships between the boy and his family. The grandmother especially dotes on the boy because a fortune-teller told her he would grow up to be important. The sister is bitter because although she studied hard and did very well on a difficult high school entrance exam, she must attend a preparatory school for teaching college. Later the mother tells her how unhappy the father was with his first born, a girl, who was sickly and died young. In contrast, her brother prepares to go to high school and university. Obviously, the male child lives a privileged life as his parents' pet. Thus, the film subtly presents the subordination of women in a traditional, patriarchal Chinese milieu.
The family speaks the Hakka dialect within the house, while the boys largely speak the Taiwanese dialect with their native island friends. The local Taiwanese merchants cannot even understand the grandmother's Hakka dialect. The children all speak Mandarin Chinese in school, and the daughter often speaks Mandarin in the family. In particular, the narrative choice to have the character Ah Hao-ku speak the Taiwanese dialect indicates the boy's identification with Taiwanese culture and indifference to mainland Chinese culture. He often sings native Taiwanese songs and has no interest in Chinese Nationalist politics. He symbolizes the younger generation's integration into politics and culture as Taiwanese. That generation is uninterested in the Chinese mainland, the return to which obsessed the Nationalist Party and many mainlanders who came to the island with the Nationalists.
The father explains to the children about the political events mentioned on the radio, but the children don't really care. In one scene, the radio announces a famous Nationalist general's death and broadcasts a memorial. While Ah Hao-ku and his friends are playing billiards in a pool hall, an old Nationalist soldier hears the memorial and says they should quit playing to show their respect. When Ali Hao-ku insults the old Nationalist, a fight breaks out. Obviously, the younger generation shows no interest in the Nationalist Party (KMT) past. In the film, schoolboys joke about the phrase, "recovering the homeland." They immerse themselves in the present rather than in future glories or China's past, while mainland China obsesses some of the older generation, such as Ah Hao-ku's grandmother, who wants to return to her old village.
In the film the older generation generally remains focused on China and out of touch with life on Taiwan. When the father's autobiographical diary comes to light after the mother's death, the daughter reads it out loud to her siblings. The father wanted to settle in Taiwan only briefly, expecting to return to China. He accordingly bought cheap furniture. He refused to buy his wife a sewing machine though he eventually relented. He closely followed Nationalist politics and never really identified with Taiwan.
Taiwanese culture is genuinely hybridized, containing an amalgam of many different cultures, ranging from various Chinese traditions, Japanese or European colonizers, and U.S. and global culture. TIME unravels the conflicting experiences and traditions which inform contemporary Taiwanese life, and the narrative indicates how complex it is to form a national identity out of competing traditions. Taiwanese people's cultural experience is also diasporic, with Chinese from the mainland periodically emigrating to the island and island residents often returning to the mainland, going to other Chinese enclaves throughout the world, or emigrating to the United States. Hou's films take up the theme of how this dislocation produces suffering.
TIME is largely a family tragedy with the father's dying of tuberculosis and then the mother's dying of cancer some years later. At an early age, the children must come to terms with their parents' deaths and assume personal responsibility for their lives. The senile old grandmother frequently gets lost, trying to "cross the next bridge" to her old Chinese village, and the film ends with her death. During the later scenes, the grandmother is shown sleeping on the floor in the midst of activity. She eventually passes away, dead for days in the middle of the house before her death is discovered, her body partly decomposed. This tragic figure represents allegorically the discarded older Chinese generation, never assimilated, always out of place, and never at home.
But the film primarily focuses on Ah Hao-ku's growth and coming to maturity, so it can be read as a bildungsroman about Taiwan of the 50s and 60s. The boy has his first sexual initiation with a prostitute, who has to pay him because it was his first experience. He joins a gang which engages in violent clashes with an opposing gang. He has a crush on a local girl, but she tells him that he should focus his attention on his university entrance exam-which he does.
Thus, TIME shows the immigrant Chinese generation becoming part of Taiwanese culture, taking on an identity as Taiwanese. TIME also shows the forces of modernity transforming the island. An early scene shows the installation of electric wires. The children grab a piece of discarded metal as a piece of magic — though they sell it the next day to the scrap metal man. The boy's father dies during an electrical blackout. In several scenes, electrical wires fill the image; and the film uses the radio to broadcast the era's key political events. In particular, one radio report notes that the Taiwanese have shot down two Chinese communist MIGs, referring to the constant political tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, tensions that could at any time explode catastrophically for Taiwan.
In general, the radio in Hou's films speaks the voice of the Nationalist Chinese KMT colonizers. Frequently it is the voice of doom, broadcasting news of outside events that tragically impinge on the Taiwanese. The radio thus stands as a force of modernity, bringing modern mass communication into a traditional society. But it also represents the voice of the dominant powers since the Chinese Nationalist regime tightly controlled broadcasting until the 80s democratization movement. In fact, the films of the new Taiwan cinema began this democratization movement by beginning to criticize Nationalist hegemony and to produce more critical versions of Taiwan's troubled history.
Modern modes of transportation and communication bind Taiwan up into a Westernized industrial society. The railroad is another icon of modernity frequently used in Hou's films to portray modern modes of transportation. Indeed, in TIME transportation changes from bicycle-drawn buggies, dominant in the 1950s, to motorbikes with a few cars in the background. The railroad tracks in Hou's films represent the passageway from rural to modern. In a similar way, Hou's episode in THE SANDWICH MAN deploys a flashback that shows the main character and his wife on the train as they come from the countryside to their new destination in the city. Another film, DUST IN THE WIND (1986) opens with long takes of trains winding through the countryside and passing through tunnels, not only symbolizing modern migration to the city, but perhaps also the plunging into personal tragedy and the dark night of the soul.
DUST IN THE WIND focuses on a young boy and his childhood sweetheart who leave the village to seek their fortunes in the city. The boy finds work there, first in a printing establishment that also runs a cinema while the girl works in a garment factory. She cuts her hand in an industrial accident and cannot afford a doctor although the boy loans her money. He quits his job to work as a messenger, but his motorbike is stolen and his prospects are bleak. These disasters almost drive him to theft, but he is dissuaded by the girl. When both return to their small towns to visit their families, the boy leaves for his obligatory military service.
During this stint, the girl marries, breaking the boy's heart. Once his military service is over, the boy returns to his village alone where he encounters his grandfather in the field, complaining about this year's crop and engaging in the conversations they have always had. This view of rural life, in which the young are alienated from both tradition and modernity, points to an unchanging but disappearing tradition in the face of shifting fortunes and uncertainty brought on by a modern, complex social order.
Despite the inherent drama in TIME and DUST's situations, Hou's pace is slow and probing. He delicately uses the camera to explore the environment. High drama remains downplayed. The films focus instead on the mundane details of daily life, the typical pains of growing up, and the subtlety of family relations. When the characters undergo painful experiences, their sufferings, mundane as they are, exemplify the suffering of the Taiwanese people. Such national suffering would be the subject matter of Hou's later films as well.
Hou's unique camerawork and editing style have elicited spirited debate concerning its progressive versus reactionary features. The long takes and long shots, often with deep focus cinematography, allow him to depict many aspects of the social environment. Some critics see this as the creation of a democratic cinematic language, which allows the spectator to interpret the events, reflect on the characters and actions, and construct his/her own meanings. Hou's cinema clearly eschews Hollywood's more manipulative style with its rapid cutting, fast pace, ideologically loaded scenarios, and high tech special effects.
Yet Hou's style might be said to naturalize traditional Taiwanese culture, making its conventions seem natural and good. Since his films focus intensely on family life, they could be read as an ideological defense of the ancestral family and of traditional Taiwanese culture in the face of an ever-encroaching, corrosive modernity. Yet his films are rarely judgmental and have neither a celebratory nor critical effect. Instead, they force the audience to reflect on the images and construct their own readings. SUMMER AT GRANDPA'S, for instance, opens with a naturalistic scene of high school girls in identical uniforms, singing traditional songs. The images could be read as indicting the Taiwanese educational system's authoritarianism and conformity, or simply as nostalgically evoking customary high school days.
Likewise, one can read into Hou's films a critique of traditional family and authority, as well of contemporary culture. Hou's films do not defend or respect tradition and patriarchy in the way that Ang Lee's "Life with Father" trilogy does, although the films also do not attack patriarchy in the way Wan Jen's AH FEH and Zeng's WOMAN OF WRATH actively do. In DUST IN THE WIND, the grandfather's homilies to his grandson reproduce traditional values but are clearly ineffectual. In SUMMER AT GRANDPA'S, the grandfather is harshly authoritarian. The contrast between urban and rural, traditional and modern — at the center of Hou's films — comes to us in an understated and rather nonjudgmental way, forcing us to render our own judgments on the characters, situations, and contrasts portrayed.